Total loss

Europe Loses an Industry Titan

Total-CEO-Christophe-de-Margerie-Source-Bloomberg-Jan-2014-during-World-Economic-Forum-Davos-CH
Christophe de Margerie had been Total chief executive since 2007.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The death of Christophe de Margerie will set off a succession at the top of one of France’s and Europe’s most powerful companies.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Christophe de Margerie had been chief executive at Total since 2007.
    • Russia accounted for 9 percent of Total’s output in 2013.
    • Possible successors are senior Total executives Philippe Boisseau and Patrick Pouyanne.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

It was a major loss for European industry.

Late on Monday, Christophe de Margerie, the irascible, eloquent chief executive of French oil giant Total, was killed in a runway accident at a Moscow airport. Mr. de Margerie and three crew members on his executive jet died after their plane collided with a snow plough while attempting to take off.

The accident is likely to reverberate through Total, French industry and Europe’s oil and gas sector.

Mr. de Margerie had navigated the choppy, multinational waters of the global energy business to transform Paris-based Total into the fourth-largest energy company, and one of the world’s 20 largest corporations. A French standard bearer, Total is the country’s second-largest firm after BNP Paribas.

The charismatic Mr. de Margerie never shied from controversy and had been a vocal defender of Russia in its ongoing sanctions battle with the West over the Ukraine. An aggressive expansionist, Mr. de Margerie had constantly pushed Total into new and lucrative markets.

The 63-year-old became Total chief executive in 2007, reaching the top of a company where he had worked his entire career. He graduated from the elite École Supériere de Commerce business school in Paris and started work at Total in 1974 during the height of the oil crisis. He became head of Total’s Middle East division in 1995 and was responsible for exploration and production from 2002.

His fulsome bristle moustache was a personal trademark, earning him the nickname “Big Moustache,” which fit his outspoken and gregarious nature. He came from a privileged family of diplomats and entrepreneurs, and his maternal grandfather founded Taittinger Champagne.

Mr. de Margerie was one of the first proponents of “peak oil,” the idea that the world’s supply of oil is limited and will one day run out. This belief drove him frequently to leave Total’s headquarters in Paris’ La Defense western business district in search of new energy opportunities.

He was a committed networker, and a global business leader who embodied the joie de vivre ideal.

“Nothing replaces human warmth and a handshake,” he once said. “You never reach a deal by telephone.”

His intense personal drive and commitment led him to explore new energy opportunities in far-flung corners of the world such as Iraqi Kurdistan, French Guiana, Tajikistan and Angola.

His favorite locale for deals was Russia, and Mr. de Margerie became a big defender of Moscow in the Ukraine conflict. In July, he told Reuters that Europe should stop thinking about cutting its dependence on Russia and instead focusing on making deliveries safer.

“Are we going to build a new Berlin Wall?” he asked. “Russia is a partner and we shouldn’t waste time protecting ourselves from a neighbor.”

Want to keep reading?

Subscribe now or log in to read our coverage of Europe’s leading economy.